Hold The Eggs

When hot breakfast turns cold, students protest cutbacks

In the fall of 1977, the most important meal of the day became the most newsworthy meal of the year, as then-Dean of the College John B. Fox Jr. ’59 limited the serving of hot breakfasts to four of the College’s 12 Houses in an attempt to cut board costs. The move sparked student protest and, though a revelation in the spring of 1978 of a Food Services budget surplus rendered the point moot, the hot breakfast controversy exposed undergraduate concerns over how well their student representatives acted in protecting their interests and how receptive administrators were to their opinions.

In the spring of 1977, then-Director of Food Services Frank J. Weissbecker persuaded administrators that a proposal to open the Freshman Union to serve weekend meals starting the following fall—part of Fox’s plan to move all first-year students to the Yard—would cost an estimated $160,000. He proposed offsetting the expenditure by limiting hot breakfast service to four Houses: Leverett, Quincy, Kirkland and Currier. The remaining eight Houses would offer only cold, continental-syle breakfasts.

According to Fox, the late Weissbecker had known that the Fox Plan, under which all first-years were moved to the Yard, would entail the opening of Union dining halls but did not object to the expense until after the changes were adopted. He says the late disclosure made this “roadblock” even more agitating.

“It was because of the cost of reopening the Union that [Weissbecker] felt compelled to reduce breakfast,” Fox says. “At the time he persuaded us that the Fox Plan was an unbearable burden [for dining operations].”

Some Like It Hot

Soon after it was announced in the spring of 1977, the new breakfast plan encountered stiff student resistance. Mather and Dunster House residents banded together to form the “Eggshell Alliance” to protest the elimination of their hot morning meals.

One morning that spring, roughly 50 alliance demonstrators gathered at the Mather and Dunster House dining halls, chanting “we want it hot.” They then blew whistles and clashed cymbals as they marched toward University Hall and the old Union dining hall in protest of Fox’s decision.

The previous winter, the Committee on House and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) had attempted to obtain a detailed budget from Food Services—a document that some say would have helped explain the necessity of a the limited breakfast plan.

“We literally begged Weissbecker,” Joseph F. Savage Jr. ’78 told The Crimson in October 1977. “But he said he can’t make up an accurate budget letter. His reason is that he’s understaffed and can’t work up a reasonable budget. I think that’s baloney.”

Fox now says that he had his own reservations about the breakfast plan but that he kept these concerns to himself because he didn’t feel he had any grounds on which to argue against it.

“Personally, I was in no position to argue with him. I didn’t have access to the numbers,” he says.

According to Fox, Weissbecker was the one who was adamant about the implementation of the breakfast plan.

Still, Fox bared the brunt of student anger at the restrictions.

In September, after the limited breakfast plan was implemented, a new group called Student Lobby replaced the Eggshell Alliance as the voice of protest over the cutbacks.

Student Lobby cited long lines and overcrowding at the four Houses with hot breakfasts as reasons to re-evaluate the limited breakfast plan. To protest the changes, they drafted a petition and even went so far as to organize a two-morning “eat-in,” in which they planned to descend en masse upon the “hot” Houses. But while the petition boasted 900 signatures, the eat-in drew only a modest turnout.

CHUL Out

As it battled over the breakfast issue, Student Lobby also claimed that CHUL, then the main undergraduate representative body, was not doing enough to champion student interests.

“The breakfast decision was an example of the University’s disregard for student opinion,” said Laura E. Besvinick ’80, an organizer of the Student Lobby protest, in September 1977.

Student Lobby would later change its name to Student Issues Coalition in order to be officially recognized by CHUL.

CHUL, an official standing committee of the Faculty, was founded in 1970 in response to the 1969 student seizure of University Hall and to the earlier takeover of Paine Hall. Students involved in the protests had demanded more undergraduate power in administrative decisions, and CHUL’s composition reflected that request. The committee was comprised of both Faculty and student members, including student House representatives, House masters and administrators.

Though CHUL had access to the “91 account”— the budget for non-academic College expenditures such as House funds and money for other student-related activities—in the fall of 1977, student representatives were still pushing to gain access to broader budgetary information, while others hoped to exercise influence over budgetary decisions.

CHUL’s legitimacy as a student representative body was not only challenged by Student Issues Coalition, but also by the actions of other student organizations. In October 1977, the Currier House Committee called for a constitutional convention of House representatives to establish a new student government.

In November, the delegates wrote in a statement of purpose, “Most students will continue to be unable to have a meaningful voice in decisions about their educations and their lives until there exists an organization which is directly and solely accountable to them, and which is prepared to act to represent their interest.”

Fox says that students took issue with CHUL in part because it was a representation system designed by the Faculty, and not by students. He says the issues raised by the convention were the impetus for the formation of today’s student governmental body, the Undergraduate Council, which was finally established in 1982.

Hot Stuff

During the winter of the 1977-1978 school year, the breakfast debate became complicated as several news issues came to light. First, the state announced that it would decrease its meal tax, forcing the College to refund a surcharge of $15.50 or treat the money as an increase in board fees of that same magnitude. This raised the question of whether the extra money should be used to reinstate hot breakfasts in all the Houses.

CHUL voted down this idea 10 to 9, with 12 members abstaining. Student representatives explained the decision by stating that they were faced with the choice of maintaining the current system with longer breakfasts in “cold” Houses or serving shorter hot breakfasts in all the Houses. Under the plan in place, the eight House dining halls serving cold breakfasts were open up to half an hour longer than the other Houses.

However, CHUL voted in favor of using part of the meal tax surplus to fund hot breakfasts in all the Houses during the January exam period and ignored Weissbecker’s claim that “it is simply not feasible” to offer hot breakfasts during that time.

Fox acted in accordance with the CHUL decision and opened hot breakfasts in all the Houses during the exam period. He also decided to refund the $15.50 surcharge.

In January, CHUL conducted a student poll in hopes of resolving the issue, only to find that students were nearly evenly split on the hot breakfast question.

Out of 2,650 responses, 43 percent of students advocated a full breakfast in every House, 40 percent indicated preference for the limited breakfast plan, and 17 percent said they “really don’t care.” Student representatives pointed to fiscal constraints as a motivating factor in student opinion.

“Had there been longer hours in the hot breakfast Houses, too, I think the vote for hot breakfast would have carried a lot better,” William T. Prewitt ’79, the CHUL student representative from North House—now Pforzheimer House—told The Crimson in January 1978.

Later in the month, CHUL voted to have all the Houses serve hot breakfasts, despite a potential increase of $13 in board fees. Fox indicated that the University would follow the committee’s recommendation and full breakfasts would be reinstated in all the Houses the following fall.

But by May, Weissbecker announced that Food Services had actually netted a surplus. By the end of the 1977 fall semester, they had gained $100,000. After paying off debt and placing some of the funds in a reserve account to purchase new equipment, Weissbecker told The Crimson in May 1978 that the final balance of the Food Services annual budget was $47,000.

At the end of the hot breakfast debacle, Fox told The Crimson he was happy that the problem was finally resolved.

“I was beginning to find the breakfast topic spectacularly tiresome,” he said in May 1978.

Today, Fox says he still remembers how irritated he was about the matter.

“I was very annoyed that Mr. Weissbecker had landed us in that mess,” Fox says in reflection. “In another frame of mind, I would have said, ‘Why the hell did you do this to us,’ but given he had abandoned his position [on the issue], it seemed best simply to say: ‘how fortunate.’”

Despite the breakfast debacle, Weissbecker continued to work for Food Services for four to five years after the hot breakfast plan controversy, according to Fox. He chalked up the incident to Weissbecker’s traditional philosophy on food preparation, describing him as a “pots of potatoes”-minded dining manager.

“He ran dining services well, we thought,” says Fox. “What was a shock was when his successor introduced what [current students] now enjoy and still balanced the books. So we then began to wonder.”

—Staff writer Nalina Sombuntham can be reached at sombunth@fas.harvard.edu.